Monday , March 4 2024
Liberalism isn’t a theory, in a manner of speaking. It’s a state of mind, a program by the feebleminded, all who have given up on hard thinking, an opiate.

Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part X

Let’s reassess where we are in terms of the presentation, which claims have been made and which may require further substantiation, and to the extent possible, outline the general contours of the unfolding argument.

The main thesis underlying this series of essays can be stated thus:

The emergence of what we recognize today as the modern liberal state can be traced to the political writings of Thomas Hobbes, with minor emendations here and there by other theorists, most notably John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I found it convenient, after C. B. Macpherson, to dub Hobbes’s political theory as “theory of possessive individualism.”

Possessive is the operative term here, and I remain convinced it’s an apt one. It depicts to a tee the essence of present day market relationships, in which private property and limitless accumulation of wealth, including capital, serve as the cornerstone of the economic system in place. Capitalism would be inconceivable without either, if the commons were given their proper due, that is. Needless to say, it wasn’t always so. It wasn’t predominantly so even in Hobbes’s own time. It was sufficiently so, however, for Hobbes to take notice.

It may be debatable whether the object of Hobbes’s remarks was politics or economics: it’s safe to assume, however, it was the former. What is indisputable, though, is that the economic relations of his day, especially those which had argued on behalf of what was soon to become a full-blown capitalist system, served as the foundation. Thus, a political system was born alongside the economic one; the latter serving as a model. Hobbes was the first theorist of note to have merged the seemingly disparate spheres of human activity into one integral whole. It was economics and economic relations that, according to Hobbes, defined the first principles of politics, via his brand new conception of the human subject.

Hobbes was also the first in the long line of social contract theorists. This, too, followed from his reconceptualization of the human subject. Since some men were always men of property whereas others were not, it stood to reason that those who had anything to lose would form a protective agency, the state, whose main purpose would be to protect their common interests. The notion of the state, so construed, would be minimal (see Nozick, for example, Anarchy, State and Utopia), but more on that later. Suffice it to say, there were plenty enough men of good will and property to come together and join forces, to protect each and everyone from theft, pilferage or plain robbery. And it doesn’t matter one bit whether Hobbes had actually envisaged so dire a situation in terms of dog-eat-dog, more appropriate perhaps to a situation in which men might so behave in the context of some hypothesized, pre-political community, prior to the inauguration of the state. All the evidence, in fact, points in the opposite direction, namely, that he had never considered any such pre-political community in the first place; his was merely an abstraction from the existing socio-political relations, those which obtained in the present, a thought experiment in a manner of speaking, an experiment in “what if.” And so were his analysis and conclusion: men have always tended to behave as if all were a party to a social contract. The object, again. wasn’t to establish any historical relationship or necessity, only a logical one!

Needless to say, other things followed, most importantly, perhaps, our political concepts, such as rights, freedom, and obligation: each received their particular coloring from Hobbes’s reconfiguring of the human subject; and that coloring, for all intents and purposes, remains.

Take our rights, for instance. For all the gains that have been made, whether in the name of civil rights or universal franchise, the concept is bound to function, it is limited to function, only as a strictly reactive, remedial type of concept, always having to respond to, or to oppose, the state of oppression, never to eliminate it. (Likewise with the corresponding conception of freedom.) And these are some of the most positive of applications. In most commonplace, ordinary contexts, our rights come down to mere individual rights, the freedom to do as we damn please (so long we don’t trample on another person’s rights).

But that’s Hobbes’ legacy for you, the idea that freedom and rights are unconditional and (exclusively) proprietary to the individual; they’re said to constitute in fact the very essence of what it means to be an individual. No thought whatever has been given to, no allowance of any kind made for, such things as public interest or the greater good. We’re made to believe instead that no one owes anybody anything, that each and everyone has been put on Earth solely for their own benefit and pleasure, to roam it like some aimless, thoughtless nomads, to pluck it at will and reap whatever rewards we can with not an iota of concern, each man, woman and child on their own and for themselves. The fiction has been made real, and it lives amongst us.

I’m not against the idea of individual sovereignty as such, for sovereignty, properly speaking, is a kind of quality which can be attributed only to persons: all other forms derive their meaning only by extension, representation or delegation being the usual devices. And our Hobbesian subject here is no exception, for he, too, had bequeathed his sovereignty, inalienable rights and all, for a price. What I object to, however, is the concept unconditional sovereignty, just as I object to the concept of unconditional right, unconditional freedom, and unconditional power; because unconditional sovereignty, let’s face it, translates to unconditional and arbitrary power: not only is this a hopelessly unrealistic position, untrue to facts (unless we imagine ourselves gods); it’s also a dangerous one, for it makes us think and act as though we were omnipotent. Once more, fiction is represented as a fact.

I’ll tend to this “atomistic” picture of the Hobbesian individual at the end of this presentation. I’ll be relying here on the maxim that the success or failure of any social or political theory must rise or fall with, that its validity is entirely dependent upon the philosophy of the subject. Make that subject fictitious, untrue to life, and for all intents and purposes, you’ve dismantled the theory. (Of course, it’s not just the one-dimensional subject which makes for the weakest link in any political or social theory but the underlying concepts which, too, end up untrue to life, truncated and one-dimensional.) This shall remain my strategy, a strategy aimed at neutralizing Hobbes. Meanwhile, there are other concerns.

For one thing, I also asserted that Hobbes’s picture translated to modern day liberalism; secondly, that it translated to statism. The first of the two claims is the more straightforward of the two, if by liberalism we simply mean a political philosophy whereby individual rights serve as the cornerstone, the primary postulate. And for all the nuance or fine tuning one could possibly affix to liberalism as a political philosophy, or to the modern day liberal state (if only as a historical form here and now), I remain convinced the definition captures the essence. What about the connection to statism, though, surely an unexpected turn of events if we’re to take Hobbes’s pronouncements and postulates at face value? Well, this requires argumentation.

For one thing, one might start here by saying that since the liberal solution consists by and large of positing the sovereign as having the ultimate say in all matters appertaining to conflict between private and public interests, it’s been a natural progression on the part of statehood to assume that role and, in so doing, to gravitate towards statism. And here, we’d have to trace this progression through its many historical forms, from its originally benign conception as the minimal protection agency, operating as it were in a purely laissez faire fashion, in a political, social and economic environment, to eventually culminate in a full-fledged welfare state; the epitome of statism.

One must preface these remarks by saying this isn’t just a theoretical failure; it’s a practical failure as well. One could imagine, I suppose, the idea of sovereign under the most ideal of conditions, unencumbered by any concern other than that tending to the idea of justice. That form of statism I could well understand. We know, however, that’s not the case, that as a matter of practical necessity, foreign relations and competition on the international scene are the first things that come to mind here, sovereigns tend to behave no differently than individuals, lucid at times but on other occasions, quite irrational and given to bullying. It’s this ever present irrationality of the state, grounded in necessity, to be sure, but always liable to erupt when push comes to shove, that makes the modern sovereign fall short of the ideal and, whenever circumstances seem to demand it, turn on its own citizens as well, if and when need be. Surely, that wasn’t part of the original (classical?) conception, the conception of statehood and sovereignty as an all-comprehensive and all-encompassing concept, the be all and end all political entity perfect in every way, the idea that no sovereign ever would be, could be, subject to any external influences or pressures, or it wouldn’t be a sovereign. One can only dream Alexander’s dream here; meanwhile, the theory has been invalidated by practice.

Couple this now with the fact that the very conflict between private and public interests which the liberal theory posits, and which catapults the state as though the ultimate arbiter of all such conflicts, again, not as part of the original conception but as one which has been annexed to it by virtue of unanticipated consequences and developments, and we’re beginning to see the many respects in which the liberal theory was destined to fail. It’s always been patchwork since Hobbes.

Granted, Hobbes’s initial propositions may still stand, individual rights, except for those which have been bequeathed to the sovereign, being the most important, but surely, the very admission of public interests as possibly countervailing private interests must run counter to the very spirit of Hobbes: it runs counter to the very spirit of the liberal theory as originally conceived. If anything, it’s an admission of the theory’s abject failure.

One may only speculate here as to the reasons; and I suspect that winning universal franchise played no small part in this (since it had brought all those who were initially disenfranchised into the political fray and, of necessity, expanded the scope of political dialogue to include heretofore unheard of horizons and vistas). But however that came about, the idea of public interest and public good has eventually come of age to become a permanent feature of the modern day liberal state: the state was obligated to respond by showing a more democratic face. None of this, however, should dissuade us from the fact that liberal theory has been patchwork from day one. (Which accounts for its uncanny longevity and staying power; it’s only by being able to adapt to new circumstances and developments that it remained the dominant political ideology of the day. And this makes it all the more dangerous for the fact, not less so.)

Let’s face it. Liberalism is an attractive ideology insofar as it promises progress on both economic and political fronts; and its influence, far from showing any signs of dissipating, appears to be spreading. Now that it has shown its true colors in the once affluent West, about to bring that part of the globe to its knees, it’s quickly gaining foothold in China, once a bastion of anti-imperialist thinking, not to mention the developing countries of the Third World (all, if not most, run by self-proclaimed dictators in case you haven’t noticed), from Arabia to Africa; in the name of democracy, human rights, and economic development. Never mind it’s a pretext, an exercise in grand illusion. The important thing is, liberalism is on the march and it’s got to be stopped for it perpetuates a lie.

There’s nothing about liberalism which promotes true democracy; in fact, everything about it hinders it. Liberalism is based in and thrives on conflict, mitigated by such notions as pluralism and tolerance; democracy requires direct participation, mutual aid, and cooperation. Liberalism is an all-encompassing, global, and totalitarian system, no less totalitarian or imperialistic than socialism or fascism used to be; democracy is first and foremost local, and only then spreading concentrically. Liberalism offers the illusion of freedom; democracy, true freedom.

Whatever the alleged association between the two, between liberalism and democracy, that is, it has always been feigned and contrived, more on the order of make-believe than the facts of the case. The connection between the two is neither conceptual nor empirical: it’s but an attempt at facsimile, a cheap facsimile, a play of the metaphor. Whatever semblance of democracy there may be to liberalism, it’s been smuggled in by the back door, as it were, via annexation. It’s not a part of the liberal theory proper, which, once again, confirms the liberal theory to be nothing other than patchwork

If this doesn’t amount to incoherence, I don’t know what will. But then again, liberalism isn’t a theory in a manner of speaking. It’s a state of mind, a program by the feebleminded, all those who have given up on hard thinking, an opiate. If I can puncture holes in it and show it to be inconsistent and delusional, so much the better; and this series of essays will not have been in vain.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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